Stay Active to Prevent Back Pain

By , Elena Rover, FITNESS Magazine
The remedy for back pain used to be rest and more rest. But recent guidelines say that the key to beating back pain is in staying active. Here, how to treat and prevent an aching back.

How to Treat Back Pain

There's nothing like all-consuming back pain to make you want to become one with the couch. If you've been there, you know what we mean. If not, consider yourself lucky: It's pretty easy to push your back's intricately entwined bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments out of their comfort zone. "We see a lot of women in their 20s and 30s coming in with back pain because they've returned to a sport out of condition or suddenly upped their exercise intensity," says Daveed Frazier, MD, an assistant clinical professor of orthopedic surgery at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. "Our bodies just aren't designed to absorb the abuse we give them."

When pain strikes, your initial response might be to rest. "But even just a few days of lying idle can lead to deconditioning and further harm," says Roger Chou, MD, director of clinical guidelines development for the American Pain Society (APS). "Staying active helps keep the muscles and tendons loose and strong." In fact, the thinking about back pain has shifted so much that the APS and the American College of Physicians recently released new treatment guidelines. Read on for the latest in pain prevention.

Your First Defense Against Back Pain

Rule out red flags. In rare incidences, back pain is caused by an ailment such as a kidney infection or even cancer. If you suspect your ache might be a side effect of a medical issue, if you have a fever, or if you've been in an accident, call your doctor ASAP.

Apply heat. A well-placed pack of frozen peas might reduce swelling or ease pain, but heat is a sure thing. Whether from a warm bath or a heating pad, it loosens strained muscles.

Get up. "Staying in bed, given the accompanying muscle weakness and stiffness, does more harm than walking ever could," says Dr. Chou. As soon as you can, resume regular activities and light workouts, but keep strenuous exercise on hold. (That means no Spinning class, Miss I-Must-Not-Skip-the-Gym.) If movement is too painful (more than 5 on a scale of 0 to 10), lie on your back with a pillow under your knees for a few hours before trying again.

Walk this way. Shuffling like the Tin Man may help you get from point A to point B faster, but those movements stiffen your already sore muscles. Instead, try walking with a long, slow, fluid gait, which releases muscle tension and lubricates joints.

Get relief. While pain meds won't speed your healing, they may get you back on your feet faster. The first bottle to open is acetaminophen, says Dr. Chou. (It's virtually free of side effects.) If you don't have an ulcer and you think your ache is muscle-based, you can try an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen. For blinding pain, ask your doctor for something stronger, like a muscle relaxant.

Wait it out. "Most people show significant improvement over the first seven days," says Dr. Chou. (By six weeks, back pain disappears for 90 percent of people.) If you're not even starting to feel better within a few weeks and treatments just aren't working, consider seeing a back specialist, such as an orthopedist, who can determine if you have the usual "nonspecific back pain" or something more complicated.

Next: Get More Strength and Flexibility to Help Your Back Pain
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Do you suffer from back pain? What helps you?

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Having had gastric bypass, I cannot take any types of anti-inflammatory medication. I do have occasional lower-back pain, and working on a computer 5 days a week, 8 hours a day does give me a pain in the neck! LOL. So I keep healthy with regular exercise and regular visits (every 3 weeks) to my chiropractor. In times of high stress, I might need to add a heating pad to my regimen, but for the most part being pro-active about my back works best for me. Report
Way back in 1967 when I was diagnosed with arthritus in my back and elsewhere, my doctor told me that yes, he could give me pain medicine. BUT I was only 21 and would need stronger and stronger medicine until nothing helped me, probably by the time I was 35 or 40. Since my family usually lives until their 90s, what was I going to do for pain for the fifty or so years after that.
He then went on to tell me the only thing that would work for my lifetime was exercise. I was diagnosed with osteoporosis in the spine and elsewhere in 1984. Between them both and the accompanying sciatica, numbness, tingling, falling down and not being able to walk at all at one point, I know back pain. I don't take pain relievers now except for naproxen, once in a while.
The doctor was right 45 years ago when he said exercise is the only thing I can count on to work. It got me walking again and 17 years later still am and the back pain is less. I haven't even had to use my cane in almost two months since I increased my workouts. Report
I am a "back pain queen" after having an infection in my spine that resulted in two surgeries including the fusion to repair all of the damage. One activity that is critical in helping back pain is to work out in the pool. I have had--and am still receiving physical therapy and I was referred to a warm water pool for therapy. They taught me how to walk and they taught me a variety of exercises that helps me so much. I go to the pool virtually every day and it keeps me moving. It does a better job on my pain than any meds or injections. I have raised the bar from my early exercises, there is great info out there about pool exercise. I cannot recommend it more. Report
Whenever I lay around in bed too long my back complains - I figure it's nature's way of telling me to get my exercise in! Report
Back pain.... something I have come to know very well. I have sciatica. Boy does it hurt when it acts up, I hunch over when I walk, it makes my left leg tingly and a lot of the time numb. I hate it. For now, I try to stay as active as possible, it seems to help and for pain I take Tylenol for Arthritis. Hopefully becoming more fit will help in alleviating the pain. Thank you for posting this blog!! Report
I have been looking at buying a new mattress to help with my back pain. It gets so bad it actually interferes with my ability to walk or exercise. I have been looking at to try and decide which one will help the most. These tips will help a lot too, I am certain! Thanks for the great post. Report
I cannot agree more with the advice to stay active to relieve back pain. It helps me immensely. My back feels stronger with a combination of cardio, strength, and flexibility training. Report
This is SO true! I have severe scoliosis and my back has felt SO much better since working out and losing weight. It hurts bad at first, but if you work through it, it's totally worth it! Report
Been there, done that. I used to have a sit down job and I have a bulging L5-S1 disk. Now that I've changed jobs and walk all day. I scarcely feel the bad disk any more. Report
I have suffered with the heriated disks for years. Bad knee pain and I are used to be enemys but today we are custionly friendlys. I used to scream whenever I got up or sat down. And even today I feel scared to move, but I do it slowly and softly. Whenever it rained or just very cold weather I would not go out or get out of bed but today I do. Slowly but surely. In the past year I have come down from 219 to 185 and holding. After years of not being able to walk farther than a block or two; and never stairs, I can now do both; softly and slowly. The heat is great. I use it whenever it is bad weather. My doctor is the greatest I have had him for over 15 years and he has always told me to move and eat healthy I was lazy and have a low tolerance for pain. I don't want to take pain medicines too often as I am a recovering addict. Though I have been clean for 22 years I am still aware of how easy it is to become addiced. God is my watch word and whenever I get to feeling like I go want to do it anymore I call on him and things get easier. Report
I've had back pain for months due to arthritis. Yoga and light stretching provide some relief, and massage therapy helps a lot. Hot showers and a heating pad work the best. I'm guilty, though, of not dialing down exercise enough to accommodate the arthritis. When I reduce the amount or intensity of exercise, the weight starts creeping up and that's not good for my back either. I bike and run less and have started to swim and hike, but I really should take more days off to recuperate. Report
I am glad so many of you picked up on the dangers of the so-commonly used acetaminophen in Tylenol and many other OTC pain & cold meds. Irreversible liver damage being the worst. I personally don't feel that it works that well for any pain that is inflammation and prefer good ol' aspirin. It's not without side-effects either but I make sure I take ASA with food and follow the directions. Report
I've had three breaks and three back surgeries on my back. Exercising and walking has really helped keep the pain at bay. If I don't get my usual exercise, my back does suffer. Report
Thank you, REDPEPPERS for your note on acetominophen. My first thought on reading this post was that readers should be warned that too much acetominophen is dangerous. Report
Regularly participating in spin classes or biking seem to stop / prevent my back pain. I think it forces me to balance the exercise on both sides of my lower body - not really sure, but I do get the back pain back when I slack off. Report
Priscilla Patrick, who teaches YOGA on PBS has some good videos on Yoga for Back Pain. Her web site is at YogaOne(.)com
Rodney Yee also has some good YOGA videos to help with back pain. Report
Completely agree with REDPEPPERS, acetaminophen is no bueno!! Report
Acetominophen is NOT "virtually free of side effects;" Acetominophen is a known liver toxin. It is also used in many different over the counter remedies, increasing the risk of liver damage if individuals take more than one type of OTC medication. Always check the labels of your meds, both prescription (acetominophen is also combined with other pain killers in prescription drugs) and OTC, to see what the ingredients are and how much of the ingredients are present. Make sure you do not take more than 4000 mg per day if you are a healthy adult. If you drink alcohol or have liver problems, you should ask your doctor first if it is safe for you to take acetominophen.
See and then go to acetaminophen

And while heat may make your back feel better, it should not be used first. Use a cold pack first to reduce the inflammation, then use heat if you wish. An ice pack, aspirin or another nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) can help to reduce pain and inflammation, then applying heat can soothe muscles and connective tissue after the inflammation diminishes.

I have back pain from sciatica and bone mets in my spine. I have found Tai Chi helps, as well as a DVD workout I just got, Yoga for Arthritis by Peggy Cappy.
I also have a TENS units which helps. Report
I get arthrtitis in my back and make staying active a priority. I have found that if I skip workouts for a couple of weeks my back is more vulnerable to getting painful. When it does get painful I still work out, but never push through pain. I don't push through any joint/arthritis pain. I always at least walk. If walking a long way is hard you can break it down to walking around the block for five minutes several times a day.

Rest is really important too, but the trick is to get the balance right. Report
I know SP will help me lose the weight and my back pain will disappear! Report
Men get back pain too. I just recovered from several days lain up. I slacked up on my back exercises and yep, I strained my back. Great posting. Report
So I did good I guess, well I blogged about my back just a couple days ago and agree getting back to it helps! Spasmed June 13th and again on the 15th and last night I ran 5.5 miles so making progress! Report
I've suffered with low back pain for years - after falling down a few steps in college. Regular visits (what I call "routine maintenance") to the chiropractor helps. But I have noticed that since I've become more active and exercise more, the pain has lessened and is less frequent. Since I work in an office, I try to make sure I get up from my desk and move around periodically. Report
My chiropractor is my lifesaver!! Report
I have a long history of back pain and the degenerative changes on x-ray to "prove" it.
Tai chi is helping me stay active, and I've started getting regular massages to reduce "attacks." Lying down for too long does make it worse. The heating pad is my friend, and occasionally I require muscle relaxants. So it's day-to-day, trying to stay flexible and moving. Chi walking and running have helped me tremendously. Report
Thank you for sharing this blog for as I got fit & got my core strong my back didn't hurt sitting at work anymore. Report
The best thing I did to alleviate back pain was losing weight. Truly. I found the more weight I lost the less flares up I had of my chronic back pain that came from many many years of working on, under and around jets. Report
I had back pain for the better part of 2 years, starting at 9 weeks pregnant to 1 year+ PP. Chiropractic didn't help. Yoga didn't help. Resting didn't help. Anti-inflammatories didn't help. Then one day my massage therapist tried some "energy work" she couldn't/wouldn't be any more specific...and my back pain is gone. Amazing. Report
Following up on the "Walk this way" paragraph, the slow, fluid movements of Tai Chi are also useful for loosening things up. Report
This blog reflects my own experience. I had no back injury, but it used to be so painful for me to walk around the block that I'd get tears in my eyes. I kept walking, slowly and carefully. It took awhile but as I lost weight and got fitter, the pain went away - completely! I was just completely unfit. Now my favorite activity is hiking! Report
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